It's the day after Christmas and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and three friends embark on a road trip-one of those journeys you take when you're 27, wealthy, single, and anxious to kick around for a few days.
Another friend, a 21-year-old aspiring racer, is ready to make a career move, relocating from Buffalo to the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, and Junior and company head north in a red truck borrowed from Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. They'll lend a hand to their New York buddy, and, while they're at it, live it up a little before they return to North Carolina.
"We got just past Greensboro (North Carolina) and turned off the interstate and just followed the compass from there on out, never got on another four-lane road," says Earnhardt. "It was pretty cool going through all those backroads. We went to Washington, D.C., and took our picture in front of the White House and in front of several of the monuments. We went through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and saw the battlefields, but it was about two in the morning so it was kind of hard to see what was going on. We had a good time, just kind of messed around. It took us 22 hours to get up there because we were fiddling around all day and all night."
A media swarm usually accompanies Earnhardt at the track.
Road trips have become prized therapy for Earnhardt, mainly because they're not at all complicated. He and some buddies will simply hop into a car and drive somewhere. Usually they'll head to a place that doesn't have a local racetrack and-here's the key-where the locals don't follow racing. It's not so much what the trips offer as what they don't offer: no public appearances to worry about, no strict schedules to adhere to, no one in your face all the time wanting you to do this or that or go there. "It's been more fun and beneficial for me when I do get time off to get totally away from it, to just go somewhere and get out of my element altogether," says Earnhardt.
So on the way back from Buffalo the week after Christmas, Earnhardt and his buddies detour a little west, going through Ohio. Not exactly a place to get away from racing, given the 50 or so racetracks that dot the Ohio landscape, but a diversion nonetheless.
"We stopped at a bar and spent the night and had a good time," Earnhardt says. "It was a lot of fun. It was kind of cool just to get away and be normal for a while. That was definitely a reality check to get you pumped up about the year and get you back into life."
Eye of the Storm
Taking a road trip and relaxing is one of those requisite life functions when you're suddenly the face of an entire sport and the whole world wants a piece of your time. Or when your new book, "Driver #8," is on the New York Times bestseller list.
Now in his third year of Winston Cup competition, Earnhardt still seeks a breakout season.
If we peep into Earnhardt's life for a glimpse of how hectic and demanding it is to always be in the public eye, then it's easy to see why something so innocent as a road trip, nothing more than an escape into a life resembling normalcy, is so valuable.
Earnhardt's sister, Kelley, and his publicist, Jade Gurss, are charged with the task of making sense and order of Earnhardt's professional life.
"It's like a big, giant jigsaw puzzle," says Gurss, who co-authored "Driver #8." "You have a lot of pieces that are strewn all over the place and the challenge is to get them to fit in the best way possible. If he were to do all of the interviews or all of the appearances that are requested, he would be working 24 hours, seven days a week. In the 10 days at Daytona, he did almost 95 interviews and nearly a dozen different sponsor appearances or functions, plus one massive autograph session for his new book."
This whirlwind of attention has surrounded Earnhardt since he took the Busch Series by storm and won back-to-back titles in '98 and '99. Since moving up to Winston Cup in 2000, when he promptly won two races and two poles, the intensity has increased as Earnhardt has almost single-handedly redefined stock car stardom, standing before people in places previously outside the NASCAR reach.